In Memoriam

Dear Reader:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I took a call from my husband as I was driving to my weekly counseling appointment.

“Something horrible has happened,” he said with uncharacteristic alarm.

You mean another horrible thing…I thought. It had been six weeks since my well-loved 36-year-old brother had died and only two weeks since we’d buried him. I was heartbroken; life was off-kilter, out of focus. Every time the phone rang, I anticipated more horrible news. I was living with the burden of a heightened sense of vulnerability.

That day the collective sorrow of the nation merged with my personal grief. I watched what we term “senseless death” as I did when Matt passed. People taken too early, before hopes and dreams can be realized. Families left wondering why. Faith and equilibrium threatened.

The lives lost on 9/11 became part of our country’s history. Matt’s life was part of my history. The parallel drew me closer to all those who suffered that day. Loss and sadness are part of what it means to be human. It is there for all of us to experience together, but ultimately to resolve on our own.

Today, I remember my brother, Matt, who was taken too soon. I miss spending time with him; it was so easy. I remember the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on that awful day when as a nation we felt our collective vulnerability. I remember, most of all, that loss is part of life, and as such, kindness should be our imperative.

With heartfelt condolences to all who have loved and lost,

Michele

 

 

 

 

All You Need is Love (all together now)

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

Caitlin Doughty

 

Dear Reader:

Death has come again and taken the life of another in my circle of friends. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote to you about a friend who lost her father quite suddenly. Today I learned of the passing of another man. He was a husband, father and grandfather who took great joy in the companionship of his family. Indeed he spent the morning at the pool with his grandchildren and the afternoon with his wife and daughter before he passed quickly of an apparent heart attack.

The lives and deaths of these two men have raised questions among my friends. The questions are old and yet they seem new again when one is confronted with loss. Why do some live long lives and others die young? Why do some suffer? What is the meaning of life now that I know this will happen? When and how will my loved ones die? And, ultimately, when and how will I die?

I have friends of all ages and the youngest ones are just now facing loss as adults. It is quite a different matter when a young child loses a grandparent or great grandparent. I can still remember the Christmas morning when my then four-year-old daughter looked at her great-grandmother and commented: “You are very old; you will die soon.” The room fell silent until Gigi smiled and took her great-granddaughter into her arms for a hug.

My daughter does not remember making this bold statement nor does she remember her great-grandmother. It was in fact a year and a half later that Gigi passed at the age of 96. We were surprised the day we got the call as we had anticipated that the next death in the family would be that of my 36-year-old brother. I lost my brother two weeks later, a year after his cancer diagnosis. I was newly 40 and devastated.

My brother was never given any hope that he would live longer than a few months; he lived a full year. Friends and family offered to finance a trip for him and his wife as they’d never left the country. My brother chose instead to live the last months of his life simply. He devoted time to housekeeping,  sorting and gifting his possessions and putting papers in order. He spent time with family and friends. He shared his deep faith and complete confidence in God and an after-life with anyone who would listen. He created art and he enjoyed the companionship of his wife and dogs in his comfortable home and in the nearby mountains.

I watched my brother die…closely and attempted to make sense of it all. It made no sense and yet it informed me and inspired me. I can never explain why the youngest member of my family was the first to die. I still don’t think it was “fair.” I still believe he should be here with me to exchange a laugh or two about how hard it is to get older. But, he accepted his passage with such courage and calmness that I could not help but do the same.

His death gave me the opportunity to ponder life and all the old important questions. I concluded years ago that the Beatles said it best…”all you need is love.” I have loved and I have been loved and, in the end, that is the only thing I need.

Sincerely,

Michele

 

I’m Very Sorry…

Dear Reader:

It’s been a couple of weeks (longer than ever) since I last wrote to you. I’ve been immersed, deeply, in my own world (more on this in the days to come), but I’ve returned to “real life” where my friends have been living without me (mostly). We’ve been tethered to each other by the quick text here and there and the certainty that we are being remembered and wished the best.

Today I returned to the fold where I learned that a close friends’ father passed last week quite unexpectedly. He was a young man (about my age) and he died from a sudden heart attack. I can only imagine the shock and confusion my friend must feel. Death, it seems to me, is always unexpected and in some way unfathomable. The fact that it is inevitable does not change our ability to find it believable or acceptable.

How can it be that the person I called “father” is no longer here? When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at 35, he was given 3-4 months to live. When he died a year later, there was still part of me that could not comprehend that the world would go on without him. I can still remember the sign on the freeway as I drove into town after his funeral: Expansion made possible by your tax dollars. Completion 2013. Wow…I thought …he won’t be here to enjoy the improvements to the road. In the weeks to come my mind grappled with the realization that he would not be here, ever again, to meet me for a cup of coffee. I’d never hear his voice at the end of the line. He wouldn’t get to see his niece grow up.

In the days, weeks and months after my brother’s death, I remember wishing that there was some sort of sign I could quickly and easily give to others to tell them that, despite appearances, I wasn’t okay. In other times and places, mourners have been identifiable by their manner of dress and afforded special considerations. I knew my friends cared and yet they found it difficult to talk about the death of my brother. Most of them didn’t know where to start and what words to choose and they mistakenly believed it would do more harm to approach the subject rather than to ignore it.

There were a few people, though, who knew just what to say and I learned from their compassion and my loss that the only words one needs to hear are: “I am so sorry about the loss of your (fill in the blank).”  In the days that followed, I received a few letters from family and friends who knew my brother and shared special memories. Some of the stories they told, I’d heard, but others were new to me and they were all a joy to read. Friends who did not know my brother, made donations in his name to the American Cancer Society and local hospice care and I received notes recognizing their gifts. Any and all overtures to recognize my grief and loss were of comfort to me.

One of the things I gained from the loss of my brother is the language of empathy. It’s a simple, quiet language that holds immense power to bind us all. We will, each of us, experience loss. Do not be afraid to acknowledge it or touch it. It will find you in your time. Be ready to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Be ready to look into the eyes of a grieving friend and offer what you can.

Sincerely,

Michele

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Brother

Dear Reader:

He would be 53 years old  today, but instead he rests under a marker that reads: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not here—I do not sleep.”

Today,  I can not help but remember my brother. Perhaps, you, too, have a special birthday you remember but no longer celebrate in the conventional fashion. Or, maybe your mind turns to a loved one on the anniversary of his death. Loss will touch us all and I have found that it can be such a comfort to share the experience with others. I hope you will not mind if I share my experience of loss with you today on this day that can not help but move me.

During his 36 years of life,  my brother, Matt Lehman, occupied a large place in my heart and in the imaginations of family and friends. He was handsome, stylish and charming. (Think Matt Dillon, seriously!) He was a salesman and a collector. He’d been born with long eyelashes and affecting eyes. And bat his eyelashes, he did! The gesture was even more disarming when it was combined with his ready smile. He radiated enthusiasm, as if for him the entire world and everything in it was exciting. He was a joy to be around, and so everyone wanted to be his friend.

Matt was the youngest of three siblings. He was like the exclamation point after his two sisters. And, he certainly was not meant to be the first to die. But, as he told me one day after a visit to the cancer treatment center “how can I ask ‘why me’ when there’s a 12 year old child sitting next to me waiting for his chemo treatment?”

There was never any hope given other than the  possibility that treatment could extend his life a bit. It was in July 2000 that I received his phone call telling me it was cancer, “not a good kind,” and the doctors had estimated he had four months left. In the end, he lived a full year after his diagnosis. He made the most of that year generously sharing the time he had left with those who loved him.

I vividly remember an exchange with Matt during one of our last visits. His faith was unshakable; he was going “home.” I did not share his strong beliefs, but I found myself explaining that I couldn’t go with him just then. I needed to stay and raise my 4-year-old daughter. My baby brother was going somewhere and some part of me felt that I should go with him or instead of him. Or maybe, some part of me wondered how I could bear my grief.

For a long time after Matt’s death, I felt sure that every ring of the phone would bring news of illness or death. And, of course, just below the surface was the fear that came with being brutally reminded of my own mortality. But, I have celebrated the milestones of 40 and 50 remembering that my brother never did. I am grateful for the years I’ve been given to test my commitment to my husband (shaken but never destroyed!) and to watch my daughter grow into an adult I admire, respect and love.

And, so  with tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face, I remember my dear brother today but not beside the headstone that bears his name.  For he is not there. He lives with me in my heart and I know in the hearts of many others.

I welcome you to share your remembrances of those you have loved and lost.

Love,

Shell

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